Interest in the Iron Age remains of Scotland can be traced back at least to the latter part of the eighteenth century. While the early antiquarians of England plundered barrows, those of Scotland ‘cleared out’ brochs and stone-lined souterrains. The earliest accounts, though often imprecise, give tantalising glimpses of finds now lost. William Roy surveyed hillforts in the course of his mapping of Scotland in the 1750s (Roy 1793), while it is known, largely from the Old Statistical Account that excavations took place in the latter half of the eighteenth century on a variety of sites. For example, the Rev. Playfair carried out the first recorded hillfort excavation, at Dunsinane Hill, digging a long, narrow trench across the interior (Christison 1900, 86; Playfair 1819; Robertson 1799), while Sir Walter Scott excavated at Green Cairn, Fettercairn, Angus in 1796 (Brown 2003, 55). Vitrified forts were a particular topic of early debate, focussed on whether they were natural or artificial, and some were excavated to cast light on this (e.g. Williams 1777). The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780, but its interests remained rather disparate for the first few decades, embracing history, numismatics, travel writing etc as well as archaeology, although there are some important early accounts of broch excavations (e.g. Joass 1890). The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) was first published in 1856, and it is only then that substantial excavation reports began to appear.
One recurring theme in the history of Scottish Iron Age research is the role of the individual – at key points the work of a very small number of researchers pushed knowledge forward. Early researchers were often working in the worlds of law and medicine with access to the Edinburgh intellectual circles of the day. Downturns in publication of excavations of Iron Age sites frequently coincide with the death or retiral of key individuals. Most were independently wealthy. For the late nineteenth century, examples include George Petrie and his work on the brochs of Orkney, Sir Frances Tres Barry’s excavations of Caithness brochs, and, in a more eccentric vein Christian Maclagan, a Stirling lady whose independent means enabled her to crash through the expectations of her class and gender. Though her interests were not restricted to the Iron Age, or even to the British Isles, she did carry out various surveys and an excavation on the hillfort on Mither Tap o’ Bennachie.
Photograph of Tress Barry's excavation at Nybster broch, Caithness, © RCAHMS
Nineteenth-century archaeology benefitted from two great synthetic surveys. The work of Daniel Wilson (1851, 1863) drew together many widely-scattered references, much of it unpublished, including important sections on Iron Age remains, while Joseph Anderson’s Scotland in Pagan Times (1883) synthesised many of the early antiquarian excavations. Anderson was a self-made man, whose archaeological career began as a corresponding member of the Society whilst working as a journalist in John o’ Groats. By 1869, he was Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, and many of his books and papers remain important today. For instance, without his work the results of Tress Barry’s diggings in brochs in Caithness would have been lost, while he published important papers on brochs (e.g. 1873, 1877) and a wide range of artefact studies (e.g. 1885, 1904). These papers were placed firmly within what he referred to as the Early Iron Age, a term which he insisted should not be ascribed absolute dates (Graham 1976, 286).